Europe’s Terror Challenge
Europe’s Terror Challenge
War & Peace (Season 5)
War & Peace (Season 5)
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

Europe’s Terror Challenge

For 70 years, Europe has been conducting a great liberal revolution. The European Union is not yet a finished project, but it has brought prosperity with peace, security and human rights in a measure the continent has never known. 2016 will reveal much about whether that revolution can keep moving forward.

On the eve of a nervous holiday season, the great challenge is to find the right responses to the Paris attacks and the so-called Islamic State, and to the refugee flood. Europe’s leaders and its citizens will be making fundamental choices about the core of the EU project. Firmness and moderation, principles and pragmatism are needed in interlocking, roughly equal measure.

Will Europe be more successful against Islamic State than the United States has been against Al-Qaeda? Fourteen years after 9/11 and four years after Osama bin Laden’s death, Al-Qaeda is alive and well, in Yemen, Syria, Libya and as a franchise elsewhere. Recent weeks have shown that the terrorist threat is still growing, with Islamic State imitating Al-Qaeda’s tactic of long-distance attacks. 

To learn from the American experience, Europe must identify which threats are the same and which are different. The stakes are higher for Europe, which, unlike the US, is not insulated by an ocean from Middle Eastern turbulence. What happens in the Middle East impacts on Paris more directly than on New York. Is the appropriate internal security response more integration of security services, even a European security agency and a common border service? Or will European states choose to retrench behind national borders?

The terrorist attacks come at a particularly sensitive time, when the refugee crisis has already opened deep divisions within the EU. Because a few terrorists can slip into Europe among the hundreds of thousands fleeing violence, they provide a powerful but specious argument to those who see the influx of desperate people as a threat to European identities. 

The European continent’s history is not that of North America, even if they share the ambition of universality. Multiculturalism is a more complex challenge in Europe, where immigrant populations often derive from its former empires’ control of most of the world; America, by contrast, has traditionally welcomed the downtrodden for a second chance. 

If Europe wants to remain true to its universalism, it must enrich its vibrant past with the cultures of those it once dominated.  It should do so without apologizing for its history. The US – with the major exception of slavery – perceives itself as a constitutional contract continuously renewed by the free choice of each American. It is almost entirely focused on the future. Europe would be impoverished if forced to choose between its past and future. That is why Europe hesitates before defining the new balance it needs to respond to this range of threats.

The structure of Europe’s reaction should have several dimensions, some of which can draw on the experience of the US, which scored successes as well as making mistakes in its ‘global war on terror’. 

A key difference is that while planned and supported from abroad, the outrages in Paris were mostly executed by home-grown terrorists. Europe has a tradition of revolutionary violence largely absent from the US experience. For most of the past 100 years, the groups advocating and practising it were inspired by 19th century European ideologies: nationalism (ETA and the IRA), anarchism, and Marxism (the Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof and Action Directe). These have lost appeal. The only ideology with universal revolutionary ambition left standing is a strand of radical Islam. 

Another difference is that the terrorists of 2015, unlike the 9/11 engineers who learnt to pilot airplanes, are not well educated. Most seem to be small-time thugs with failed lives. They are more attracted by extreme violence than by their nominal religion, of whose tenets they know little. 

Care should be taken in joining the domestic and foreign fronts in the struggle against extremist violence. Abstaining from any direct action against Islamic State might give it an aura of invincibility that could increase its attraction. But characterizing European petty criminals turned mass murderers as a ‘terrorist army’ may help the propaganda of an organization that wants to be seen as a global strategic threat. European governments need to reassure their nervous constituencies, and cannot abstain from a military response, but they should not create the illusion that this is the main response. 

Terrorism is first and foremost a police and intelligence challenge, and that is where the US can claim a victory of sorts: there has not been a significant terrorist attack from abroad against its territory since 9/11. Guns kill many more people in the US than in Europe, but not in terrorist attacks. 

After the massive failure of 9/11, the US developed a more joined-up security response, based on extensive databases and electronic surveillance. Europe should immediately correct the manifest gaps that exist in its intelligence sharing. It should also assess the American effort, evaluating whether mass surveillance is vital to success – as security agencies claim – or presents excessive risks to civil liberties for uncertain results. 

Unfortunately, the integration of security services – and there is little doubt for an outside observer that a Europe-wide response would be best – is likely to be severely constrained by EU politics, which increasingly prioritizes national responses, a reflection of the identity crisis Europe is undergoing.

President Francois Hollande is right to oppose any attempt to divide and distinguish treatment of citizens on the basis of religion. Islamic State flourishes on the basis of polarizing societies. However, he and like-minded leaders face a political challenge from increas-ingly vocal far-Right movements that unwittingly play into the extremists’ hands.

Europe will be most secure – perfect security is impossible – if it fully respects the civil rights of all within its borders. But that should not mean allowing those borders to remain as permeable as they now are. Effective control of the EU’s external borders is a legitimate demand that needs to be met and by meeting it take the wind out of the sails of domestic critics.

This cannot happen overnight, however. Several years are needed to develop and implement institutions and procedures. The EU should consider what may be required in the interim to preserve the free internal movement that is one of its core values. A possibility might involve partial, explicitly time-limited restoration of some internal borders, within the terms of the Schengen agreement, so that documentation of non-EU citizens can be reliably checked. 

Meeting the Islamic State challenge forcefully in the Middle East, where it is centred, in particular in Syria, means inflicting pain militarily, both with some airstrikes and by giving more aid to local forces that can contest Islamic State on the ground.

The military campaign must be carefully calibrated, however. If it can portray itself as being oppressed by outsiders, Islamic State will probably gain as much in new support as it loses. If a coalition against it is allowed to include Assad forces, a possibility that Hollande reportedly hinted at recently, many Sunnis who have suffered under that regime’s brutality will conclude that Islamic State is the lesser evil.

Europe’s new struggle needs to concentrate on political solutions to the root problems in the countries from which Islamic State draws its greatest strength and where it is trying to establish its caliphate. Where it is most urgent, in Syria, this means adhering to a bottom line that a sustainable peace will not be achieved with the present regime untouched. 

This can only come to pass if the regime’s guarantors, Russia and especially Iran, can be persuaded that their core interests are among those a settlement protects. The goals of an international struggle, in other words, need to be moderate, the kind that, although facilitated by military means, can only be achieved by diplomatic compromise.

The answer to the question: ‘What kind of Europe can succeed?’ will define the thread that runs through all that must be decided and done in 2016. Will Europe choose burden-sharing and cooperation? Or will it turn ever more strongly to national solutions and isolationalism? To uncoordinated bombing in foreign military campaigns? To unilateral measures at home, including withdrawal behind national borders and the erection of walls between its citizens?

The latter path leads to a dead end, and perhaps also to the end of what has been built with so much effort and success since the Second World War. We must not allow the far-Right and the even farther-out xenophobes in our polities to drive us in that direction. What is needed now is more Europe, not less.

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